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Right out of left field with David Ward

Right out of left field with David Ward - David Ward, landscape photographer, explores the world through photographs.

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Professional Interviewed

Marram grass by David Ward
 © David Ward.
By definition you don’t expect to find a top landscape photographer living in a city. Even to suggest it as a possibility would be anathema to most of the genre. But when Sat/Nav calls it quits in the middle of a verdant sheep field outside Hereford, in a place where your mobile won’t work and where even the local villagers haven’t heard of the guy you’re trying to track down, you know you’re in unchartered territory.

David Ward might well break bread at the top table of UK-based landscape shooters with the likes of Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish, Ben Osborne and David Noton but intriguingly, there’s no road, path or even driveway to his house, and the only way to get to him is to wait until he rocks up in his 4x4 and picks you up just beyond the deep, rock-strewn ditch by the cattle grid. We’re talking ‘Little House on the Prairie’.

It would be easy to think he was on the run from the law. But Jesse James he ain’t. He just loves living there. David has been passionate about landscape photography ever since he went on a family holiday to the Lake District when he was ten years old.

We were driving to Ullswater after a really bad week of weather” he remembers. “The road climbed up the side of the valley. There was a point where you could look down to the valley floor and as we drove by, the clouds parted and a superb shaft of sunlight appeared. There was a rainbow and a cluster of dark grey clouds and suddenly I saw the land as landscape.

Some years later, still armed with his trusty Kodak Instamatic and an insatiable desire to learn about the photographic profession, he started dating a girl whose uncle just happened to be renowned Seventies and Eighties press photographer, Terry Fincher.

David tells ePHOTOzine: “I was very lucky. I was able to see how professionals worked – and at the same time my girlfriend’s father introduced me to the joys of black and white printing in the darkroom. It was pure magic.

He completed a photographic degree course in London and came out knowing a lot about the history of photography but with no idea how to apply that knowledge.

Seahouses by David Ward.
© David Ward.
Adds David: “For two years I worked as an assistant for various advertising and editorial studios in London but after I managed to blag a day working with the brilliant landscape photographer Paul Wakefield, I realised that was the area I really wanted to work in and it was on the same day, after studying the quality of Paul’s transparencies I decided I had to shoot with large format cameras.

He spent six months working on a portfolio of landscape images and then hiked them across London and various publishers’ offices until he won long-term contracts to shoot images for walking books and Shell Guides.

It was really a paid apprenticeship”, he recalls. “I worked out that after expenses I was making £9 a day shooting the walking books. This covered my film costs and accommodation – but nothing else.

Walking the walk

It takes at least 10,000 hours to develop real expertise in any given subject, according to
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The story of success (a book David has just finished reading)
That’s a long road to hoe – even if stretches of it are lined with outstanding abstract rock formations under a perfect mackerel sky.

But David has walked that walk. He’s spent over twenty years wandering up and down mountain ranges and across the world’s deserts, learning the art of landscape photography and building a reputation as one of the planet’s most venerated practitioners of the art.

Two best-selling books, Landscape Within and the follow-up, Landscape Beyond, underscore his unique ability to create images of graphic simplicity and high technical quality – inspired by many of the great American landscape photographers of the 20th Century.

Now as a lead tutor on the acclaimed Light & Land workshop programme his focus is sharp on teaching others how to develop their own landscape shooting skills.

His tutelage embraces technique, vision and a holistic philosophy of photography. “I want to try and pass on my knowledge in an accessible and humorous way” he says.

One of my concerns is about the need for simplicity in photography; reducing it to essential form. This, for me, is what photography is really about. Painting starts with a blank canvas and the artist adds to it. (Although Picasso said that a work of art is never finished, it is merely abandoned.) But photography works in the opposite direction. You start with the ultimate complexity – which is the world around you. And what you must do is isolate a proportion of that; place it within the frame and make it work in terms of balance, colour and composition. It is a simplifying process – it’s just a matter of how far you decide to take it. I do like stripping things down, but the problem is there is a point at which you move from simplicity to simplification – and that’s the difficult point to judge.”

  © David Ward.
He admits: “I look at landscapes differently now. The images I used to take were fairly classical, in the same way that painters have been painting vistas since the seventeenth century. Those artists construct images to portray a sense of depth, a sense of walking through the picture – which is something that Joe Cornish talks about a lot. Foreground, middle ground, background - and your eye wanders through the frame. But now I often try to take a vista that is more abstract. Now I might make a distant view with a large piece of landscape but it might be constructed in such a way that it might be visually ambiguous. I don’t think you can set predetermined goals about how you do it, it just happens organically as you evolve. The truth is I am looking to explore the world through photographs. I don’t have any set goals.”

David has travelled the globe in pursuit of his art; national parks across the UK, Scotland, Norway, France, Italy, Africa, Iceland – and more often than not camping in tents and getting up at four in the morning to catch the best dawn light. But it doesn’t always go to plan even for the landscape masters.

He says: “A few years ago Joe Cornish and I went to The Isle of Skye to photograph The Old Man of Storr –a weirdly shaped rock pinnacle. We parked the camper van and set the alarm for 3a.m – knowing that we had to get there very early to catch the light – and it was still a 1000 foot climb at dawn. The alarm worked but we turned it off and went back to sleep. Fifteen minutes later we woke up in a flap; got up and yomped to the foot of The Old Man. We looked up and the sun was rising in a beautiful deep red sky. Perfect.  But the problem was we were still 15 minutes away from where we knew we had to be. We spent the next three days trying to get the shot we needed. We even walked up in the pouring rain on the last morning. But we never captured the photographs we really wanted.

David is renowned for his ability to create evocative images ‘startling in their clarity and intensity’.
He says: “Once the talk of weather, light and technique has been exhausted the discussion can turn to deeper matters such as how a photograph can be evocative rather than merely descriptive.
My motivation has always been this: is there something about this place that moves me? I believe there is some kind of alchemy in the process. If the photographer is moved by the subject then hopefully that is also being transferred to the viewer. Bill Brandt talked about looking at something long enough so you can start to see it with the eyes of a child. It’s about innocence and novelty; looking at something as if it were new.

Some leading landscape shooters take the view that photographing the same subject more than once (over time) is justified if the sky and light are different on each occasion. But not David. “I am afraid that more often than not these differences are not compelling enough for me. I don’t generally go back and photograph the same view. I need to constantly find fresh things. If I do return to subjects I have to find a completely new approach. I think that if you are trying to make this voyage of exploration you need to find new pathways - rather than revisiting the same points.”

David Ward Fontaine de Vauc
  © David Ward.
Watching out for ‘anoraksia’

David is predominantly a film-based photographer and prefers to create the shot in the camera rather than relying heavily on Photoshop.

On our Light & land workshops we are seeing increasing numbers of people moving back to film.”, he notes. “Film gives me a kind of anchor point. I like the palette it provides. You get to know exactly how that film is going to react to the world around you. Of course you’ve got custom profiles that you can set in a digital capture environment but I find digital is more ‘plastic’. It allows you more manipulation options and in some ways I don’t like that. Film has the feel I like for landscapes. It’s not about pixels and resolution; it’s about quality. Not ultimate quality – just the feel of it, for me. If my clients want digital I just provide a scan of the 4 by 5 transparency. I do work digitally in smaller formats. I have a Canon MK1 and a Lumix that I use for ‘sketches.

David believes there is a tendency for some photographers to concentrate too much on the equipment they use. He terms it ‘anoraksia’. “Cameras and lenses are just tools” he says. “It’s not really about the brand. What matters is whether the gear does what you want it to."

On his blog David suggests that his photography is ‘more akin to jazz than classical music’. He explains: “Many people set out with a preconceived idea of what they want to do.  I was trying to say that in various forms of jazz you simply extemporise. You start off with a riff and you expand from there...and this is how I approach making images. I begin with common themes; rock abstracts or water or whatever – but with no real notion of what I will shoot.

Photography is the ultimate tool for straight depiction. It swamps the viewer with information. Every single point in the picture is reflecting light back at the camera and it is describing itself in ultimate detail. So to move beyond description you must come up with approaches which confound the viewers’ expectations, in a way. And that is about perspective, simplification and the desire to create some mystery.

Out of the darkness.
I used to love black and white.” he reveals. “It still informs my colour work because the structure that underlines the colour work is something learnt from monochrome.  I think it should be mandatory that photographers spend at least some time working in monochrome because it helps them see and understand structure and form. Darkness is a big thing for me in photography. Low key colour work with areas of darkness is very emotive.

Quidinish by David Ward
  © David Ward.
David has been a Calumet customer since 1983 (when the company was trading as ‘Keith Johnson’) He enthuses: “The key thing is the expert service. You just can’t get that with online retailers. Calumet adds value but also tries to match the price. For a professional the most important thing is to get good advice about equipment – and if you buy online there is just not enough information to make that decision.

As a passionate professional David has always strived to create stunning images but probably the biggest critic of his work is himself.  “I’d say that over the years there are perhaps half a dozen images I would admit to being pretty satisfied with. But I am reminded that Salvadore Dali said: “Don’t worry about perfection because you’ll never see it.

The next five years will be spent teaching and writing more books. And David’s tip for budding professional landscape photographers?

It’s never going to be easy – and there are probably only a dozen photographers making a living solely from shooting landscapes today. A degree of luck helps, alongside the 10,000 hours preparation! And you have to remember that where you end up is not always a reflection of your talent.

Key kit:
  • Linhof Technikarden 45 MK11
  • 72mm Schneider Super Angulon f/5.6
  • 90mm Schneider Super Angulon f/5.6
  • 150mm Schneider Apo-Symmar f/5.6
  • 210mm Schenider Apo-Symmar f/5.6
  • Minolta Flashmeter V1
  • Film Velvia 50 Mark 11 Quickload
  • Gitzo carbon fibre tripod G1327
  • LEE filters
  • Waterproof clothing
  • Socks and pants
  • Handkerchief by Paul Smith (What else do you wipe your filters with?)
For more information visit David Ward's website.

Words by Trevor Lansdown.

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